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Opinion

NRDC was right on Alar in 1989 and it still is

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Opinion,Op-Eds,Environment,Agriculture

Ron Arnold's recent column ("Big Green's anti-fracking operatic chorus hits false note," May 9, 2013) is based on a factually incorrect premise, namely that my organization "falsely" claimed that the apple-growth regulator Alar was dangerous to children who ate apples.

The truth is this: Alar was and is considered a carcinogen by scientists, and remains banned in the United States by the Environmental Protection Agency on the basis of numerous scientific studies.

The original 1989 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council, "Intolerable Risk: Pesticides in our Children's Food," relied on previous studies that Alar's principal byproduct, UDMH, could cause cancer in laboratory animals.

Alar was brought to market in 1963 as a way to make apples ripen better, and the first study linking UDMH, an ingredient in rocket fuel, to cancer was published in 1973. More studies confirming the link were published in 1977, 1978 and 1984.

In 1986, the American Academy of Pediatrics urged EPA in a letter to ban Alar because of its health threats to infants and children, who proportionally eat far more apple juice and apple sauce than adults.

Subsequent events have only confirmed Alar's dangers and vindicated the NRDC report. In the wake of strong public reaction to NRDC's disclosures about the lax protection EPA's regulations were giving to infants and children, Alar's maker pulled the product from the market, and EPA moved to ban it.

By May 1991, it was illegal to use Alar on or in food in the United States. In February 1992, EPA found, based on a new two-year study, that "long term exposure to Alar poses unacceptable risks to public health."

The U.N. Joint Meeting on Pesticide Residues stated that UDMH was a carcinogen, as did the International Agency for Research on Cancer, an arm of the World Health Organization. In 1993, the head of the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children said, "NRDC was absolutely on the right track when they excoriated the regulatory agencies for having allowed a toxic material such as Alar to stay on the market for 25 years without proper toxicity testing."

It is surprising that Arnold didn't mention this overwhelming scientific consensus because, as he failed to disclose to readers, his organization helped fund a lawsuit against NRDC, our communications firm Fenton Communications and CBS (for airing our report on "60 Minutes") by apple growers, who claimed they'd lost $100 million. The suit was thrown out of court because the growers could produce no evidence that NRDC's claims were false.

Arnold accuses NRDC of being part of some operatic publicity campaign that was divorced from the real facts about Alar. The reality is that our success in generating public interest in this important issue was based on scientific data and genuine problems with EPA's regulatory system, problems which have subsequently been fixed thanks in part to our work.

EPA's pesticide regulations now recognize the need for additional protections for infants and children.

If anyone has conducted well-orchestrated PR based on false premises, it is Arnold and his industry allies. They have maintained the myth of the "Alar scare," that a useful and benign chemical was run out of town by a needlessly frightened mob whipped up by hysterical environmentalists.

As Arnold's column showed, this "Alar-as-martyr" fable is a key element in a coordinated industry effort to discredit all government regulation. But facts are stubborn things. The facts are that the NRDC report was accurate, Alar is dangerous, and better regulation protects public health.

Mitchell S. Bernard is litigation director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

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